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Army chief skips peace talks for Israeli military dealings

FILE PHOTO: Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing inspecting the FAC Super Dvora Mark 3 patrol boat at the Ashdod naval base on 8 September 2015. (PHOTO: Min Aung Hlaing Facebook)

Burma’s Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing was notable by his absence at yesterday’s peace talks between President Thein Sein and ethnic leaders in Naypyidaw.

State media have reported that the army chief was in fact on a visit to Israel where he toured a naval base and weapons manufacturing facilities. Global New Light of Myanmar said that he confirmed an order for the FAC Super Dvora Mark 3 patrol boat, a vessel mounted with 30mm cannons, which is designed for deployment in coastal rivers.

On Thursday, New Light reported that Min Aung Hlaing had visited Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defence Forces Lt-Gen Gadi Eitenkok at the Israeli Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv, where they “held discussions on bilateral military cooperation and a military trainee exchange programme”.

The news that Min Aung Hlaing was doing business with the Israeli military, which, like the Burmese armed forces, stands accused of war crimes and rampant human rights abuses, was viewed by several observers as an ominous sign.

“Burma currently has better relations with neighbouring countries than at any time it its history,” said Mark Farmaner of Burma Campaign UK. “‎Any weapons Min Aung Hlaing is considering buying from Israel must be for use in ethnic states. That Min Aung Hlaing chose to go shopping for weapons for use against ethnic groups instead of attending peace talks says a lot how genuine this peace process is.”

Matthew Smith, the executive director of Fortify Rights, a Bangkok-based human rights group, said, “Min Aung Hlaing’s absence is no mistake or oversight. A number of civilians and others involved in the peace talks genuinely believe the Tatmadaw [Burmese armed forces] is not interested in a national ceasefire at this time. Min Aung Hlaing’s absence would only contribute to the distrust that plagues the ethnic wars in the country.”

Burmese and Israeli diplomats signed a Reciprocal Promotion and Protection of Investments Agreement on 5 October 2014 aimed at boosting bilateral trade. The agreement was made despite an international campaign to divest in Israel due to its occupation of Palestinian territory and what many critics are calling “genocide” in last year’s assault on Gaza.

During an extended period of economic sanctions levelled on Burma by Western nations, Israel was widely linked to allegations of weapons deals with the former Burmese military regime, including the upgrade of fighter jets.